A short guide to raising your own queens
No matter why you’ve chosen to raise your own queens, there are undeniable and numerous benefits from doing it yourself. Many beekeepers, particularly beginners, are sometimes intimidated by this activity and prefer buying queens to raising them. The truth is that it’s fairly easy to rear queens and with enough practice, you’ll soon be an expert at it too.
One of the first steps is for the beekeeper to choose a breeder queen of high quality, that is, one with the desired traits. If you want to work with friendly, docile colonies, you will obviously choose to breed from such a hive. This part is extremely important because however competent the rearing technique is, the resulting queens will be inferior if the stock is poor.
How to spot a high-quality queen
You might be wondering “what are the signs of a high-quality queen?”. Well, “high-quality” may mean different things to different beekeepers. Nevertheless, there are some traits that you should be looking for, and they are quite easy to spot in the apiary. According to FAO’s „Good beekeeping practices for sustainable apiculture” a high-quality queen should:
- look big and strong, with fat and fully developed abdomen;
- look perfectly symmetrical on the longitudinal axis;
- have undamaged wings;
- have undamaged legs and tarsi;
- be surrounded by workers.
How is a new queen created by the hive?
You already know that the queen bee is the only reproductive female in the colony. She is created from a similar egg as the workers, but her diet changes her gene expression, resulting in a substantially different emerging bee. Additionally, the cells in which queen bees are raised are different from those of workers. Any female eggs have the potential to become queens until the first two to three days of feeding. During this time, beekeepers can manipulate worker bees to rear new queens.
In order for that to happen, worker bees would have to feel the need for a new queen. Imagine that you have a queenless hive or that you’ve restricted the current queen to a limited area. After a few hours, the bees will come to realize the absence of the queen pheromone and, if eggs or young larvae are present, will then start to rear queen cells.
There are several ways to raise new queens in your hives and all of them require the same conditions:
- The colony, raising queen cells, should have access to freshly harvested pollen and honey stores, to be converted into quality royal jelly.
- The population of the colony should also have young nurse bees which have the capacity to produce royal jelly at its peak.
- The grafted larvae should be as young as possible, ideally a few hours old, to obtain queens with increased laying potential.
2 common methods of queen rearing
No matter what method or equipment you will use to raise new queens, you should pay careful attention to timing. For example, larvae are only suitable for grafting during the first few days after hatching. Near the end of the queen rearing process, it is crucial to separate the sealed cells before the first new queen emerges. Otherwise, she will destroy any other cells she finds. Many beekeepers use a queen rearing calendar and you can do too. We have one that you can use for free any time, to access it simply click on Queen Rearing Calendar.
Today we’ll cover 2 of the most common methods of rearing queens: with swarm cells and by grafting.
One way of making your own queens is with swarm cells. One great way to look for swarm cells, when you’re doing your regular swarm management, is to tilt your hive backward and then look upwards to see if you have swarm cells. They are usually found on the bottom of brood frames. As soon as you see eggs in the swarm cells, if you don’t want your colony to swarm, you have to intervene. Remember that it’s an egg for 3 days, and the queen cell is capped about 5 days after that egg hatches. So, within a week of you seeing eggs in swarm cells, your colony may already be up on a tree, because as soon as a swarm cell is capped the colony will swarm on a warm day. It will not wait for the new queen to emerge. Colonies rear not just one but typically anywhere from 12 to 23 or more swarm cells, depending on how strong the colony is. So, you can actually make a lot of splits with swarm cells, just leave 1 or 2 of them per split. Of course, if you choose to rear queens from swarm cells, then you might want to be on the lookout for swarming tendencies from your colonies.
This method allows you to use perfectly aged larva, recently hatched, which you will be grafting into your queen cups. The best way to rear them is in a queenless colony that is brushed into a swarm box or directly into a nuc box with frames added on top. You will need to go through a few of your colonies first to find frames of young nurse bees, frames where new bees are emerging or brood frames with young larvae are excellent. Make sure that your queen is not on these frames before brushing them into a nuc box. You should want to have about 3 pounds of bees (1.36 kg). You can use a scale or estimate the weight, it’s up to you. Beekeepers recommend that you add a sponge or frame with water on the bottom of the swarm box, a frame of nectar, and one of pollen. Basically, you’re creating a swarm in a box in which you’ve put all the necessary resources. Usually, after 12 hours the bees will be clustered, but also fully aware they’re queenless and very eager to rear queens. After you graft your frame of larvae, you can hang it into the swarm box.
One or two days before the virgin queen hatches, meaning 10–11 days post-grafting, we recommend that every individual queen cell be transferred to a queenless mating unit (also called a mating nucleus). This unit plays an important role, keeping the queen cell at the right temperature until hatching, feeding, and attending to the virgin queen until her nuptial flights.
Mating units can be obtained by splitting large colonies or by mixing bees and brood combs from several hives. Extra care should be taken to only obtain resources from disease-free colonies. Mating units should have sufficient bees (this number may vary according to box size) to ensure thermoregulation. A new queen may need up to three weeks from hatching to start laying eggs, so the mating unit should also have emerging workers to replace the old ones during this time frame. Additionally, by the time the queen starts laying, the mating unit should also have enough empty cells to allow the queen to lay properly. A properly mated queen should be able to maintain a strong colony for a minimum of two years, on average.
We hope that you found our article helpful. If you have questions or feedback, you can always write them in a comment below or send us an email at email@example.com.
Happy beekeeping, everyone!